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Arkansas ARP - Eagle Through Car Dilemma


- Arkansas Association of Railroad Passengers -

The Eagle's Through Car Dilemma

Amtrak mishandles another lucrative market

For over 16 years, Amtrak operated through coach and sleeping car service from Chicago to Los Angeles via San Antonio. These cars, carried as part of the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited, were switched between routes in the middle of the night at San Antonio, Texas, thus allowing through passengers an uninterrupted night's sleep rather than being faced with changing trains at 3am. When through car service was inaugurated in 1981, the connection between Eagle and Sunset routes was transformed from an insignificant junction point to a very viable connection providing convenient service from Arkansas and Texas to Arizona and California. Passengers often selected this route as an alternative in order to see different parts of the country, using the Southwest Chief to California via Kansas City and Albuquerque, and the combined Sunset/Eagle to return via Tucson, Dallas and St. Louis.

Through car service ended on May 10, 1997, the date upon which management had unsuccessfully sought to discontinue the Texas Eagle as part of Amtrak Intercity's ill-advised business plan. Although Amtrak has now restored the Eagle to the full compliment of cars operating before May 10, the former Chicago-Los Angeles coach and sleeping car now merely terminate in San Antonio. The absence of through cars has had several effects, all of which have been negative in terms of revenue production and service to passengers.

The westbound Eagle arrives in San Antonio at 11:59pm, followed by the westbound Sunset five hours later. Connecting passengers are forced to endure a five hour layover, from midnight until the Sunset's, departure at 5:35am. Passengers aboard the eastbound Sunset arrive in San Antonio at 3:15am, and must detrain to wait for the eastbound Eagle's 7:00am departure. Middle of the night connections are especially rigorous for some of Amtrak's most faithful passengers, particularly senior citizens and families traveling with small children. Other segments of former Amtrak passengers have largely deserted the San Antonio routing by driving, flying, or selecting a route where a midnight shuffle is not part of the itinerary. A steep decline in ridership is particularly striking among sleeping car passengers who pay premium accommodation fares in addition to the basic ticket price. Very few people are willing to buy an expensive hotel room for the night when they know that they will be awakened at 3am and forced to change rooms, and it should come as no surprise that prospective sleeping car passengers exhibit a similar reluctance.

During the last few years of through car operation, it was not uncommon for 50 to 70 coach passengers and 25 to 40 sleeping car passengers to take advantage of the through car service on each trip of the Texas Eagle. In the heaviest travel periods, a sleeping car and two coaches (with total capacity of 180 passengers) were insufficient to handle the through traffic. By comparison, without through cars, an average of 30 coach passengers and 5 sleeper passengers have been braving the midnight transfer to make the connection between Eagle and Sunset routes during the past several weeks. The loss of through cars has made both routes less marketable, less desirable to the traveling public, and less capable of producing revenue from long-distance, high dollar ticket sales.

For those hardy souls who might wish to sample the overnight shuffle in San Antonio (perhaps to gain a historical perspective of how rail passengers were treated in the 1860s) Amtrak offers several other surprises. First, the Sunset Limited is operating at a reduced consist compared to previous years, because it now lacks the coach and sleeping car which it formerly received from the Eagle for operation between San Antonio and Los Angeles. This means that space aboard the Sunset, particularly sleeping car space, is at a premium. As of early June, most trips of the Sunset were already sold out or nearly sold out in sleeping cars through the month of July. This arrangement creates great difficulty for those determined connecting passengers willing to brave the midnight shuffle, because space is simply not available on the Sunset.

A second bonus awaits those passengers who, through persistence or luck, have been able to secure passage on the Sunset. At San Antonio, Amtrak has been evicted from the former Southern Pacific passenger station due to construction related to that building's commercial redevelopment. A trailer now serves as the San Antonio Amtrak waiting room and ticket office. The marginal quality of any "Amshack" facility is legendary, and would be particularly unappealing during the layover times now required.

To Amtrak's credit, those directly involved with the Eagle's operation have attempted to make the best of a bad situation. On-board crews have been instructed to allow connecting passengers on the westbound Eagle to remain on the train until the westbound Sunset arrives, thus avoiding the necessity of being herded into the trailer/station. Complimentary beverages and snacks are provided to these connecting passengers. On several occasions, however, Amtrak mechanical forces in San Antonio have insisted that these passengers detrain so that the Eagle cars may be serviced and cleaned. Likewise, passengers traveling eastbound aboard the Sunset must detrain at 3:15am, usually waiting in the trailer until the eastbound Eagle is opened for boarding some three and one-half hours later.

Amtrak's top Intercity management has been strongly urged to reinstate the through cars, thus far to no avail. Questions have been raised by the corporate "bean counters" about the allocation of costs (for through car operation) to the Sunset or Eagle route, as if each route were operated by a different company. One of the largest expense attributed to the through cars is depreciation of the equipment, a cost which will continue whether the cars are producing revenue or merely growing rust while sitting idle in Chicago. Ironically, while passenger carrying cars do not operate through, express cars carrying shipments from Dallas to Los Angeles are now routinely switched from the Eagle to the Sunset, in exactly the same manner that the through passenger cars were switched prior to May 10.

The final decision to not operate through cars was unnecessarily complicated by the express business which seems to be quickly developing along the Eagle route. Some of the express cars now being constructed for Amtrak lack trainline cables for the head-end electrical supply which provides hotel power (lights, heat, air conditioning, etc.) for the passenger cars. These particular express cars must be operated on the rear of the train. Amtrak management claims that this requirement would greatly complicate switching operations at San Antonio, possibly delaying the westbound Sunset Limited for 90 minutes if through passenger cars were handled along with express cars. (From early May through mid-June, a single non-HEP trainlined express car has operated on the Eagle, confirming that Amtrak's concern over this issue is largely a fabrication created to justify a prior decision abolishing the through cars.)

As is often the case with much of Amtrak's negative information about the Eagle, the alleged problem in switching both passenger and express cars has been grossly exaggerated. The track arrangement providing access to the San Antonio station is somewhat unique, in that the Eagle can be brought into station tracks facing eastbound (via the former Missouri Pacific routing) or westbound (via Ogden Junction). Departing Eagles can likewise utilize either routing, providing a versatility that is present in very few stations across the country. With this versatility, and with the sequence of passenger cars prearranged so that through passenger cars are located adjacent to through express cars, both types of equipment could be readily switched between the Eagle and Sunset with minimal effect and no delay to the trains. Professional railroaders have estimated that this switching exercise would consume, at the most, about twenty minutes. The current Amtrak timetable calls for the eastbound Sunset Limited to remain in the San Antonio station for 45 minutes, while the westbound train remains in the station for one hour. Station time in either case is more than sufficient to handle all necessary switching for both passenger and express cars.

The above arguments should be sufficient to compel Amtrak to immediately restore the through car operation on the Texas Eagle, but yet another factor is seemingly being ignored by the management of Amtrak Intercity. At this time last year, there were 26 sleeping car departures each week (in each direction) between Chicago and Los Angeles, and Amtrak was unable to handle all of the passengers seeking reservations. This year, there are currently 14 sleeping car departures each week between the same endpoints, a reduction of almost fifty percent. This reduction was caused by (1) the discontinuance of the Chicago-Los Angeles Desert Wind, (2) the failure to add the customary summertime third sleeper to the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, and (3) the failure to operate the Chicago-Los Angeles through cars via Texas. The already high demand for Chicago-Texas-Los Angeles sleeper space is thus even higher because Amtrak has arbitrarily reduced capacity on the only remaining alternate route.

If Amtrak intends to make a good faith effort to successfully operate the Texas Eagle, there is no question that the through Chicago-Los Angeles cars must return. Each day's delay costs Amtrak, in terms of lost revenue and the ill-will of passengers subjected to the present San Antonio shuffle. The corporation's failure to correct this problem, and indeed the failure to recognize the problem from the outset, is symptomatic of the leadership vacuum which seems to permeate many of the top levels of Amtrak management.

Prepared for Arkansas Rail by Bill Pollard. Email:

Posted: Friday, 13 June 1997

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